‘Tanks’ for the memories

Like many people, I have fond childhood memories of VW vans, but I suspect mine are a little different than most. For about a year in the early 1970s, my family’s primary transportation was a shared, late-60s-model VW van known as the Penn Tank.

The name referred to the University of Pennsylvania logo on each side. The University’s archaeology department had lent it to the Kyrenia Ship Expedition, a group of American and British nautical archaeologists recovering and reconstructing a 2,300-year-old Greek merchant ship on the northern coast of Cyprus. It earned the “tank” moniker as a tribute to its predecessor, an older, more beleaguered VW van dubbed simply “The Tank” by one of the British members of the team.

I found myself thinking about the Tanks as I read Jill Lepore’s piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker about the new electric version of the VW van that Volkswagen plans to roll out in 2024. The story is largely an ode to the iconic vehicle that Arlo Guthrie referred to as a “microbus.” (VW had to be careful what it called the vehicle. See the part in the article about LBJ, the Chicken War and the resulting legislation that still affects import vehicles.)

I was too young to appreciate the counterculture applications of the VW van, but Lepore noted that in Europe the van “could do anything: it was used as a fire truck, an ambulance, a delivery vehicle, a taxi.” I smirked. It was also used to haul diving equipment for raising ancient shipwrecks.

My father first arrived in Cyprus in mid-1971 with the hope of reassembling some 6,000 pieces of the Kyrenia Ships ancient hull fragments that had been sitting on the sea floor for more than two millennia. He had only the vaguest ideas of how to approach the project. No one had ever attempted anything like it.

He was greeted by two members of the expedition driving the faded green-and-white Tank. It had a tiny rear window, and both panels of the split windshield, inexplicably, opened outward so you could drive with the windshield up, breeze and bugs blowing in your face. The Tank was already about 15 years old by then, and the back seats had been removed to make room for air tanks, regulators and other equipment used for diving on the wreck site. In honor of my dad’s arrival, the team found an upholstered chair and put it in the back for my father to sit in for the 30-minute ride to Kyrenia. The Tank broke down three times on the way back, the last time as it topped the Kyrenia Mountains. They coasted into town.

By comparison, the Penn Tank, which arrived a year or so later from a land dig — in Afghanistan? Iran? — was pure luxury. It was much newer — larger rear window and while the windshield was still split, it didn’t open. Because my father was the only member of the expedition with children, we were allowed to use the Penn Tank as our family car. It was an American vehicle, with the steering on the left. In Cyprus, as a former British colony, everyone drove on the left. Every trip was an adventure.

The Penn Tank

And while the Penn Tank was an upgrade from its predecessor, it was still a work vehicle, pressed into service in hauling diving gear, carpentry or welding supplies, anything that was needed. My mother recalled that she and my father had to drive it to a fancy dinner at the American embassy in Nicosia. She put a towel on the seat so she wouldn’t get her dress dirty, and they parked three blocks away, figuring the valet at the embassy would never believe they had an invitation.

The Kyrenia Ship was being preserved and rebuilt in a harbor side castle, most of which was built by Richard the Lionheart enroute to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. After the last of the Kyrenia Ship’s hull fragments moved from fresh water to tanks of polyethylene glycol (the next step in the conservation process), we needed to demolish the large freshwater pool the wood had been soaking. My father would use the space to start reassembling the hull. But before we did, we decided to have a pool party. Everyone in the expedition donned bathing suits and piled into the Tanks with beach balls, rafts and brightly colored towels. We then drove in tandem across the narrow bridge and into the castle. Tourists gaped in confusion. It was the closest the expedition workhorses came to the sort of hippie moments that people statesside associate with the VW van.

Kyrenia was a small town, and we walked most places. But sometimes, my father would take the Penn Tank to the castle before we embarked on another errand. Parked in the courtyard, outside the “ship room,” I would pretend to drive, turning the massive steering wheel, fiddling with the turn signals, even once pulling it out of gear without using (or knowing about) the clutch. We covered a lot of ground my imagination, the Penn Tank and me, while waiting on my dad to tear himself away from his beloved ship.

The Penn Tank ultimately made its way to another dig in Turkey, and later, one of my father’s associates used it to flee Beirut with his family after civil war erupted in 1975. As for The Tank, it, too, found itself in a war zone. In the summer of 1974, my dad drove The Tank to the airport in Nicosia, then flew to Turkey for what should have been a weeklong trip. War erupted soon after he left. He wound up coming back to the U.S.

Another member of the expedition made his way back into Cyprus after the hostilities, and eventually to the airport in Nicosia. The airport had taken heavy shelling, and the parking lot was full of burned-out vehicles. Nestled among them, seemingly untouched, was The Tank. The tires are deflated, but with a few shots of air from a bicycle pump, The Tank once again putt-putted its way over the Kyrenia Mountains and back into town.   

No one knows what happened to it after that. There are rumors it was spotted being driven around town, others say it was last seen near the harbor. I prefer to think of it atop the Kyrenia Mountains, lingering a moment before it begins to gather momentum and heads for the sea.

The promise and the podcast

The final episode of Putin’s Oil Heist, my 6-part limited series podcast, is now out. It’s been a great run. The series chronicles the demise of the Russian oil company Yukos, told through the eyes of its former chief financial officer, Bruce Misamore. Bruce relates his experiences fleeing Russia and fighting to save the company to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year.

I had a lot of fun working with Bruce on the series, and I hope we get to dive even deeper into the story in the future. I’ve enjoyed the format of the narrated podcast, which is different from the radio-interview-style shows I’ve done before. It allowed for more storytelling, yet it still retained Bruce’s voice and perspective.

In the final episode, Bruce and I put the Yukos Affair in perspective and explore both the pain and the promise of the company’s history. Yukos was at the vanguard of a new business and economic environment that was emerging in Russia 20 years ago. Sadly, much of that was lost. Bruce shares other thoughts and insights about what’s happened in Russia since then, and why — including the role that state control of the media has played in keeping Putin in power.

While Bruce still thinks about what might have been, he’s also grateful for the opportunities Yukos afforded him, and he still relishes his time living in Russia.

To learn more, check out the whole series, or subscribe via your favorite podcast platform. And if your looking for other interesting podcasts — from sports to Enron to West Texas novel writing, you can find more here.

Father’s Day

My father and me, testing a Cub Scout rubber-band rocket in about 1975.
My father and me, testing a Cub Scout rubber-band rocket in about 1975.

My dad’s been gone for almost 15 years now, which seems hard to believe. This Father’s Day, I found myself thinking about him a lot, so I dug out this from Father’s Day 2013 and decided to re-post it.

Publisher’s Weekly just put out its list of the “10 Worst Dads in Books,” which seems like bad timing just before Father’s Day. While the article notes that “bad dads turn up less in fiction than bad moms,” the issue of bad fathers in books reminded me of some early discussions I had with publishers about The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. 

I contacted a few commercial publishers, but they seemed disappointed that I hadn’t suffered any childhood angst, that my father hadn’t left me scarred somehow by showing greater love for his ships than his children.

Fortunately, the folks at Texas A&M Press knew my father well, and they understood. I approached my book as a journalist, but also as a son writing about his father. The fact that he was an inspiration was, I decided, part of the narrative. Soon after my father’s obituary appeared in the New York Times, a friend from Oregon emailed me and said “he sounds like the father the rest of us always wished we had.” I suppose that’s true.

A few months before he died, my father asked me out of the blue if I ever resented the fact the he was gone so much when I was growing up. I was shocked. We’d never talked about it, but even though he was often overseas for months at a time, I never felt abandoned. What I remembered was the hours he spent helping me on projects, taking me places, encouraging my interests and intellectual curiosity.

“I can’t think of anything that mattered to me that you weren’t there for,” I told him.

He looked surprised. “I missed your high school graduation,” he said. “Your mother never let me forget it.”

I thought about it for a moment and realized he was right. He’d gotten delayed overseas that year and hadn’t made it home in time. But I stood by my statement, and I still do.

After my father’s death in 2007, my brother and I knew lots of people would focus on his amazing accomplishments in nautical archaeology. In writing our eulogies, we wanted to focus on him as a father. Later, I tried to capture that in the book, too. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Several years ago, after an INA board meeting, one of Dad’s students approached me and said she wanted to tell me how much Dad meant to his students and what a profound impact he’d had on their lives.

I remember thinking “yeah, he does that.” After all, if anyone can testify to the profound impact that Dad had on their lives, I can.

As many of you know, we spent a year on Cyprus when I was a kid – I was about seven at the time. That experience in and of itself was life changing – not many kids have a Crusader castle for a playground. But it was that time on Cyprus that awakened my interest in writing.

There weren’t a lot of books in English readily available for kids my age, and I was still young enough to command a bedtime story.

Often, the power would go off about the time I was getting ready for bed, and so between the lack of literature and the lack of lights, Dad began telling me stories from history. I learned about the Battle of Thermopolyae, the conquest of Alexander the Great, and, of course, Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade in our darkened living room.

But one night, Dad sat down at story time with some typewritten pages in his hand and began to read them to me. It was the tale of a pine tree – an Aleppo pine – that grew in a zig zag fashion. Because of this deformity, the other trees in the forest laughed at him. They were made into furniture and fine woodworking, but this tree, this Crooked Aleppo, was left behind.

One day a shipwright showed up in the forest and decided that the crooked tree would be perfect for the keel of a ship – a merchant ship as it were. The ship and its keel, crooked no more, sailed the Mediterranean for many years until one day it sank. Many more years went by until strange men with tanks on their backs uncovered the keel. They tried to raise him, and he broke into 16 pieces. They rebuilt him in a Crusader castle in a small town in northern Cyprus.

I think I caught on at the first mention of the word “keel,” but it didn’t matter. I was captivated. Every writer has some story, something they read in their youth, that they can point to as the spark that ignited their passion for words. For me, it was the story of Crooked Aleppo.

Not only was it a great story, but it was a story about something I knew and, more importantly, written by someone I knew. And written for me. It made me realize that stories didn’t just appear on shelves or in magazines, people wrote them. They wrote them for others. And I could write them too.

The summer we returned from Cyprus, I shamelessly copied my Dad’s format. I wrote an entire series about every piece of the Kyrenia ship – the frames, the maststep, the mast.

And from then on, I was always writing, always weaving stories.

It almost backfired, though. Years later, when I was a senior in high school, still driven by my passion for writing, I was dragging my feet about college. [Kids, you may now plug your ears.]

One night my dad came into my room and said we needed to talk seriously about college. I basically said I was thinking I’d just become a great and famous writer instead.

My dad, of course, didn’t get angry, didn’t raise his voice or even show any signs of disapproval. He paused for a moment, and then calmly said that he understood how I felt, but that I should realize making a living as a writer could be difficult and that it was a subjective business. And then he said: “I think you’re a good writer. But I’m your father, and I’m a little biased. So we have to realize there’s a chance you could stink. And if you stink, you’ll want something to fall back on.”

Even at 17, I couldn’t argue with that logic. Needless to say, I enrolled in A&M, found a career that combined my passion for words with the thirst for knowledge I inherited from my father and have spent the past 20 or so years trying very hard not to stink.

All of you who knew my dad as a friend, colleague, professor, mentor, brother, uncle or grandfather, were fortunate. But Dave and I were uniquely blessed because we knew him as a father.

At the time, it all seemed very normal, but I was reminded of how special it was just a few days ago when a friend in Oregon, having seen the stories on Dad’s death, said: “He sounds like the father the rest of us always wished we had.”

I’ve been a father myself now for about 16 ½ years, and every day I try to live up to the example he set. Every day, I come up short. His are shoes too big to fill.

Fortunately, my father also taught me perseverance, determination and that important achievements come through persistence.

Dad showed us the importance of chasing dreams. In fact, his life could be a practical guide to chasing dreams. He took risks, he gambled, but his gambles were rooted in practical sensibility and his victories were muted with humility.

As he allowed us to share in this great adventure that was his life, he never forgot the importance of simple pleasures like bedtime stories.

And in pursuing his own dream, he managed to ignite the dreams of others.

Maybe there are a lot of bad dads in books. I’m grateful to tell the story of a good one. Happy Father’s Day.

Confronting the ‘psychological barrier’ of $5-a-gallon gasoline

Gasoline prices hit a new record this week, which sent legions of TV reporters scrambling to the nearest gas stations to interview motorists. Average prices for a gallon of regular unleaded rose to $4.96, up almost 60 cents a gallon in the past month and almost $2 from a year ago.

The pumps are rife with tales of woe — anguished truckers, motorists in a state of disbelief at how much it’s now costing to fill up, Uber drivers who say they can’t stay in business. I spent almost $70 to fill up Sunday night, which is $30 or $40 more than it used to cost me. But there’s a question that doesn’t get asked in the pump-side interviews: When do you stop?

How high must prices go before American drivers leave the SUV in the garage? In the late 2000s, when we last experienced soaring gasoline prices, oil economists theorized that $4 a gallon was the threshold at which people would drive less. It was, they said, a “psychological barrier.”

That seemed to still be true. More than half of the motorists surveyed by the American Automobile Association in March said they would adjust their driving habits if gas topped $4. But we rocketed past that barrier, and we’re now flirting with a $5 average. That same AAA survey found three-quarters of American would drive less at that point.

Five-dollar gasoline may have some impact on demand, but probably not enough to make a difference. Commuters, after all, may have limited choices. Many people who can work from home have chosen to keep doing so since the pandemic. But many can’t. They must find a way to shoulder the rising cost of their daily commutes.

Summer travel also isn’t showing much of a pull back. Sure, that cross-country drive might cost twice as much as last year, but persistent flight disruptions and a shortage of pilots has made air travel unappealing to many travelers. 

At some point, prices may become so high that people stop driving, but it’s not clear what that price is. That, in theory, would cause prices to fall.

There are some signs that people are driving less. The U.S. Energy Information Administration found that as of late May, Americans consumed an average of 8.88 million barrels of gasoline a day over the previous four weeks, which is about 3 percent less than a year earlier. However, that four-week average rose steadily for most of the month. In other words, some drivers may be rethinking trips, but a lot of folks are still hitting the road. 

Things aren’t likely to get better anytime soon. Benchmark U.S. oil prices are at $120 a barrel as the world scrambles to absorb the loss of Russian crude. OPEC agreed to open the taps later in the summer, but not enough to significantly reduce prices. Similarly, the Biden administration has tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but the releases haven’t had much impact on prices. In fact, as is so often the case when presidents tap the SPR, oil prices have risen.

And at the moment, global oil demand has actually dipped because of COVID lockdowns in China. When those are lifted, demand could rise again.

The problem, however, isn’t all about demand. U.S. gasoline stockpiles have been falling for more than a month, and they are now 7 percent below where they were heading into last summer, according to the EIA. This is another kink in how the markets are supposed to work. Rising prices ought to encourage refiners to produce more, which in turn should lead to more supply. Instead, output has fallen this year, even though most U.S. refineries are running at full tilt. The reason: there’s fewer of them. During the pandemic, many older refineries closed permanently. Their owners couldn’t justify the expense of maintaining them during the lockdowns, especially considering that over the long term, demand for gasoline is expected to decline. Globally, refinery closings have cost about 3 million barrels a day in lost output since January 2020, and 1 percent of that was in the U.S.

In addition, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected crude prices, it also has had a direct impact on U.S. gasoline prices because we were increasing gasoline imports from Russia, especially on the West Coast. Last year, Russia provided 21 percent of our gasoline imports. California refineries don’t produce enough to meet demand, and U.S. shipping laws make it difficult to ship gasoline from elsewhere in the U.S. Which means not only are pump prices likely to remain high, in some regions they will shoot significantly higher.

For my TV reporter friends, you might want to leave the cameras set up at the gas station for the next few months. You’re likely to be spending a lot of time there.

The ‘Putin’s Oil Heist’ podcast

Soon after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, I found myself wondering what Bruce Misamore would make of it all. I was working on a blog post for the University of Houston about the impact of Western sanctions, and I knew that Bruce, having worked in Russia and having felt Vladimir Putin’s wrath, would have an interesting take.

I hadn’t spoken to Bruce in years. I’d first met him when I did a column for the Houston Chronicle about his involvement in the Yukos affair. We stayed in touch and even discussed doing a book, but publishers weren’t that interested in stories about Russian business or American businessmen in trying to bring western-style capitalism to the former Soviet Union. 

Now, of course, Putin’s power grab are once again front-page news. But by the time Bruce and I met for lunch in Houston to discuss how his experiences related to the current crisis in Ukraine, the invasion was already almost a month old — and had gone on far longer than Putin intended or much of the world expected.

The problem, I said, was that by the time we published a book, the public’s interest in Russia might be superseded by other news. So I suggested we try a podcast instead. While it wouldn’t have the depth or context of a book, it would allow Bruce to tell his story in his own voice.

He agreed, and the result is a project I’m really excited about: Putin’s Oil Heist, a six-part limited series that connects the Yukos affair to the Ukraine invasion, all told through Bruce’s first-hand account.

“Yukos was the start of [Putin] trying out, well, let’s see what the West will do and what the West won’t do,” Bruce said. “And here we are today in the inaction on behalf of the Western powers to let him do this.”

What went wrong at Yukos? Why did Bruce have to flee Moscow? How did he try to help Yukos shareholders? Who was behind a mysterious break-in at his Houston home?

We’ll answer all these questions and more over the next six weeks.

The first episode, “Putin’s Plan,” is now available. You can subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or where ever you get your podcasts. 

Oh, and what about that book? We’ll see. But if you’d like to hear more of Bruce’s story, let us know.

The shock of Enron 20 years later

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Enron’s bankruptcy. I helped cover the company’s demise at Bloomberg News, and later, the various trials as a columnist for the Houston Chronicle.

In the past two decades, books, films and musicals have all explored the impact of Enron, but 20 years removed from the company’s collapse what we tend to forget most often is the shock. Enron was the seventh-largest company in the U.S., and it unraveled in about a month. America had never seen corporate malfeasance on such a large scale. We had never seen company executives working against the interest of the corporation and its employees to the degree we did with Enron.     Enron touched off a wave of corporate accounting scandals in the early 2000s. Its bankruptcy, the largest in history at the time, was later eclipsed by WorldCom.

I’m often asked about the difference between the two frauds. WorldCom was the result of blatant greed. Two top executives simply abused accounting rules to line their own pockets. Enron, however, was more subtle. Executives like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling weren’t interested in more wealth. They wanted to take risk out of the corporate equation, to find a way, essentially, to guarantee rewards. And the reward they sought was that Enron would become the greatest, most-admired company in the world, they would be heralded as business geniuses, and, sure, be rewarded financially.

The main motive for Enron’s fraud was hubris, not greed.

Accounting rules were seen not as barriers but as speed bumps that executives constantly maneuvered around. As long as everyone — including shareholders and, yes, the business press — believed what the company was saying, the stock would keep rising and all Enron’s schemes would remain hidden. It was only when the stock began to fall that the intricate web of partnerships, with all their interlocking debt agreements, began to unravel and posed a threat to the company itself.

Enron, in other words, revealed in the starkest terms how the short-sightedness can blind businesses to long-term consequences. We know that business can’t always see what’s best for itself. If you read congressional testimony surrounding the passage of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, you’ll see a parade of executives warning that Congress was about to kill capitalism. Instead, that law laid the foundation for the most trusted markets in the world and led to the creation of trillions of dollars in wealth for millions of investors big and small.

Enron, though, was certainly the first time we’d seen a company and its executives work so blatantly against its own future. Sure, they assumed they would succeed, but their accounting methods were cavalier, and often, outright falsehoods. That lack of regard for transparency and honesty cost the company its future.

I tried to capture this notion of the disbelief about executives working against the good of their own company in my novel, The Big Empty. I hadn’t planned on it, but in one of the later revisions, my editor pointed out that the character of Blaine Witherspoon needed more motivation for the actions he takes at the end of the book. Given that the novel is set in 1999, before Enron’s demise, it allowed me to use this sense of disbelief for executive malfeasance. I don’t want to give too much away, but the Enron homage turned out to be a critical part of the plot.

Favorite first lines

My novel, The Big Empty, is featured in a book blog tour put on by Lone Star Literary Life. One of the cool things they did was ask me for the first line of book, then created this spiffy graphic. 

I worked really hard on that line, and it wasn’t how the book originally started. What’s now Chapter 2 was the original beginning for the book. In those early drafts, the first lines were:

Trace Malloy’s fist landed firmly in the middle of the other man’s nose. He could feel the bridge give under the force of his knuckles, and he knew he’d broken it. It wasn’t much of a punch, just a quick jab that he pulled back instantly, as if to say he was sorry.

While that opening was dramatic, it didn’t give the readers a chance to get to know the characters. The punch in the nose represents an unusual lack of control for Malloy, and the punchee, Blaine Witherspoon immediately crumples to the floor, calls Malloy a bully, and threatens to sue him. 

I wanted to give the characters more time to introduce themselves before I jumped into the conflict between them, so I added the preface and the first chapter. 

I think the new first line is still dramatic, and hopefully catches the reader’s attention. It gave me a chance to introduce both men and show a little bit about them as they sort through the aftermath of the collision. 

Lone Star Lit’s first lines exercise got me thinking of other first lines that I like. One of my favorites is from Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side:

From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five.

It sets up the moment when New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor sacks the Washington Redskins’ quarterback, Joe Theismann, breaking Theismann’s leg so horribly that the fracture could be heard on national television. It was a dramatic moment, and one that forever changed the game of football. (Taylor came from Theismann’s blind side.) That one moment defined the reason that the National Football League started looking for bigger, faster offensive tackles like Michael Oher, the subject of the book.  

Another of my favorite first lines is from a very different type of book, Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: 

The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

And, of course, Hunter S. Thompson’s opening to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

I also loved the first line from The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,Edward Wilson-Lee’s epic story of Christopher Columbus’ son and his efforts to build the world’s greatest library. 

On the morning of his death, Hernando Colón called for a bowl of dirt to be brought to him in bed.

I just started reading The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Much of the story is set in Cyprus, which is a place near to my heart. The opening resonated perfectly with my own feelings:    

Once upon a memory, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, there lay an island so beautiful and blue that the many travellers, pilgrims, crusaders and merchants who fell in love with it either wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries. 

It’s a wonderful, magical book that I’m sure I’ll be writing about in the future.

This is far from a complete list, of course. What are some of your favorites? 

Writing versus ranching

In 2015, I was driving around a cattle ranch near Flatonia, in Central Texas, while working on a story for Texas Monthly. The owner’s son was giving me a tour of the place. As we pulled under a stand of oak trees to look at some of the herd, he asked me what it was like writing books.

I described the nature of traditional publishing contracts: you devote your life to a project for a period of years, then you try to sell it in hopes it will pay off, but it usually doesn’t. In the process  you sign away about 80 percent of your potential earnings so that a bunch of people who are far less committed to the project can make money off subjective decisions about your work, many of which you won’t agree with. 

He sat stoically and stared out the window for a few moments.

“So, it’s a lot like raising cattle,” he said finally.

“Yes,” I said, “only with more risk, disappointment, sleepless nights, and bloodshed.”

Facebook recently reminded me of the exchange. At the time, I thought I was being clever. As a writer, I’d certainly experienced my share of disappointment and sleepless nights, but the risk associated with what I did was in the writing itself — taking chances with story structure and so forth. (Bloodshed was hyperbole, mostly.)

Now that I look at the process as both a writer and a publisher, I find my assessment more accurate. I take on much more risk as a publisher than I do as a writer. As for disappointment, a writer is disappointed if a book or an article falls flat. For a publisher, disappointment can be costly.

My tour guide that day wasn’t wrong in his initial observation. Ranching is plagued by uncertainties — weather, the health of the animals, commodity prices, feed costs, and the sheer randomness of how the cattle will turn out or be perceived at auction. (That’s why scientists West Texas A&M University are looking to clone cattle from the perfect steak.)

Like writing, you don’t really know how things will turn out, and a lot can go wrong along the way.

Obviously, writing is much less physically demanding, but both professions share something else: the people who do them love what they do. One of the themes I explored in The Big Empty was Trace Malloy’s inability to leave his lifestyle behind, even though logic told him there were better ways to make a living. And, of course, he wrestled with the idea that his son might take up the same line of work — he’s both proud and worried.

Writers are much the same. Given the hundreds of new books published everyday, most of us have much better ways to make a living — in fact, most authors don’t support themselves with their books. But the books keep coming.

Writers write for themselves first, and the need to do that means they will keep publishing books regardless of the economics. Most ranchers I’ve talked with have a similar view. They love the way of life, even though they know it’s hard, risky and financially challenging.

Does any of it make sense? Maybe not, but we’ll keep writing until the cows come home.

Rock to write by

Music plays a key role in my novel The Big Empty. The main character, Trace Malloy, isn’t a rock n’ roll fan, but a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River, which he heard as a young man, sticks with him: “Is the dream a lie that don’t come true?”

(When I first used that line, I thought it was “Is the dream alive that don’t come true.” Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed editor.)

In the second chapter, Trace’s son, Colt, listens to Robert Earl Keen’s Rollin’ By, which sets the tone for Malloy’s frustrations with Witherspoon and the changes in Conquistador, which boiled over earlier in the chapter.

And finally, Witherspoon, in reflecting on childhood arguments with his parents, makes a passing reference to Rush’s Freewill.

Recently, I was asked if music was an important part of my writing process. The answer is sometimes. When I’m writing, I usually prefer my office to be quiet, but some days it seems too quiet or there’s too many distractions from social media, email and so forth. On those days, I prefer a little background music.

But if I’m trying to write, I don’t like a lot of lyrics. I tend to get distracted by the words and then I’m thinking about the song instead of what I’m supposed to be writing. (When I’m editing or revising, it’s not a problem.) I’ve assembled playlists of classical and jazz, and I find jazz can be particularly good for writing depending on my mood.

Them problem is, rock is my genre. And it generally find it a better lubricant for the muse. So I assembled a playlist of rock instrumentals that I call Rock to Write By. It skews toward classic rock, (and yes, I know that grammatically speaking it should be “Rock By Which to Write.”). Here’s the list in case you want to test it out:

What am I missing? Are there any other good rock instrumentals I should add?

In defense of Trace Malloy

Earlier in the week, I posted an excerpt from The Big Empty. It was the opening to Chapter 2, in which Trace Malloy punches Blaine Witherspoon in the nose. 

My wife read it, and she was genuinely upset. 

“Why did you post that?” she asked. “It makes Malloy sound mean. It makes Witherspoon seem like the victim.”

I was surprised by her reaction. 

“You didn’t put in the part that explains why Malloy punched him,” she added. “Witherspoon insulted Malloy’s mother. That’s not in the post.” 

I hadn’t even considered that. I was simply trying to post an excerpt that wasn’t too long, but my wife is, of course, right. Without the context that comes later, the scene portrays Malloy rather harshly. 

As a writer, I found it both amazing and gratifying that my wife was defending one of my fictional characters. Granted, she’s my most loyal reader, but I’m still amazed that she identified with Malloy so much that she worried how blog readers might feel about him based on that one scene. 

That scene, by the way, was originally the opening for the entire book. I later added the preface and another chapter ahead of it because I felt the characters needed to be developed a bit more before we got to that point of conflict.   

Anyway, in Malloy’s defense, here’s another excerpt, from later in the same chapter, that provides more context: 

The battle had intensified as more homes were built in the subdivision, and each owner seemed to want — or to think they deserved — a pool. It was the stupid pond, though, that stuck in Malloy’s craw. For all Witherspoon’s self-proclaimed environmentalism, he didn’t seem to appreciate the water situation. It was as if they thought all their statistics and Internet-gathered data meant more than local knowledge. Malloy had tried to explain the interaction between limestone and low water levels and what would happen when the aquifer dropped below a certain point.

Around Conquistador, people his parents’ age still talked about the drought in the early Fifties, when the water smelled like sulfur. The aquifer could still hold plenty of water, but once the homies drew the water table down, nobody would want to drink it or swim in it or smell it in their precious little pond. They were coming off of two years of drought and possibly facing a third. Malloy hadn’t seen it this dry in years, and the old-timers were talking about the Fifties again half a decade later.  

Ranchers, like farmers, don’t forget droughts. It was that simple. A drought was a blatant reminder of how little control a cowboy has over his own livelihood. If there’s one thing the Big Empty teaches you quickly, it’s that you don’t make the same mistake twice. When it came to the weather, the land, or the livestock, Malloy had learned to listen to the elders. Witherspoon’s ears were clogged with arrogance, and Malloy had run out of patience. Tonight, he’d allowed the months of exasperation to get the best of him. Still, Witherspoon had that pop coming, and more.


As a representative of the town’s original—and biggest—employer, the Conquistador Ranch, he needed to work with Witherspoon. Instead, the cowboy in him had won out. He felt torn between his job and his livelihood, two things that had always seemed the same until the first wood frames of Rolling Ranch Estates started appearing on the horizon.

Witherspoon didn’t understand that, of course. He couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand Malloy’s frustration, his growing feeling of obsolescence. Malloy had felt like the homie was baiting him. The conversation replayed itself in Malloy’s mind.

“I think we all understand the need for water,” Witherspoon said, in a tone so condescending it immediately reminded Malloy of the first ranch supervisor he’d worked for in Kansas.

“If you understood it, you’d turn off that damn fountain,” Malloy had fired back.

“Mr. Malloy, the people here are trying to build homes. We want to build a community. We moved here to get away from the city, the crime. We want our community to be safe and attractive, and our lake is a big part of that.”

“Well, first of all, your ‘lake’ isn’t much bigger than a stock tank, and secondly, some of us make our livings out here, and a big part of that depends on water. On a hot day, a cow can drink twenty-five gallons of water, and we’ve got about twelve thousand of them out there.”

Both men had pushed to their feet, staring across the table while the ten or so other board members for the Rolling Ranch Estates Homeowners Association stared in silence.

“Mr. Malloy, we all know how ranchers have misused this land for more than a century. You overgrazed it, you exploited it, and now you want us to feel sorry for you.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with grazing practices. It’s got to do with the fact that pumping water out of the ground for your little show pond out there, just so it can evaporate, is a huge waste. And that doesn’t count all the water you’ll need for your swimming pools and lawn sprinklers and God knows what else. If this keeps up, none of us will have enough water to get through the summer.”

Malloy flung down the preliminary statistics he’d gotten from the county water district. It wasn’t just the lake, of course, the whole subdivision was putting a drain on the water table. The number of houses grew with the developers’ ambitions, and now they felt a golf course was a necessity because of the “high caliber” of homeowner they planned to attract. And that was before the factory began production and sopped up hundreds of millions more gallons a year. Malloy never knew computer chips needed so much water–-ten times as much as cows. 

The lake, though, seemed to make a blatant mockery of it all. It was as if the homies had just moved in and decided to help themselves to all the resources. The lake hadn’t been included in the original plans for the subdivision. It had been slipped in later, an “aesthetic enhancement” the developer had called it.

“There is plenty of water. I’ve studied it myself. These people,” Witherspoon said, motioning to the other board members, “will tell you no one is more concerned about environmental issues than I. But I hardly think one lake is going to suck up all the water.”

“I don’t know how much studying you’ve done of what, but this isn’t some Ivy League class project. Have you considered the evaporation rate for that fountain? We’re looking at a third straight year of drought. I’ve lived here all my life. I can remember my mama not washing clothes so we’d have water for the cows. This isn’t something you want to mess with.”

By now they were leaning across the table, noses inches apart. Everyone else in the room was frozen. Then he said it. Witherspoon crossed the line.

“Your ‘mama’s’ bad hygiene doesn’t have anything to do with us.” He bobbed his head derisively to accent the word “mama.”

The fist flew before Malloy knew he’d let it go. Or at least that’s what he told himself. Truth is, he’d never expected Witherspoon to just stand there and take it. Anyone in Conquistador who’d ever dared to say something like that would have thrown up their guard before they finished talking.

From The Big Empty, copyright 2021 by Loren C. Steffy. Stoney Creek Publishing Group LLC.

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